Australian Biography

H C "Nugget" Coombs - full interview transcript

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When you were running rationing during the war, were there many complaints about the way in which things were rationed?

Oh yes, there was a steady stream of them I suppose. I think we felt at the time that on the whole the community accepted it very well, but that didn't mean there weren't any complaints and it ... Mind we did have quite an elaborate set up for receiving complaints and making sure that they were dealt with if possible, and answered in any case. It was in correlation to one of those letters that a rather amusing incident arose. We had a letter from the Archbishop of Melbourne, saying - complaining that he didn't have enough tea and he had to entertain visiting clergy and things like that, and he wanted a special allowance and - but he, as he could - fashion required of Archbishops in those days - he signed himself John, or whatever his Christian name was, Melbourne. And so the girl who was doing the work on this, who was a girl from the ... working in the university who - she was very efficient and blunt, and she wrote back, Dear Mr Melbourne, you can't have any more tea you see, and if you have guests coming you'd better ask them to bring their own coupons or something of that kind of ... yes. Oh, another one that I found quite amusing at the time was that one of the things we had to do, apart from the rationing through the coupons, was to persuade people to use less materials and things which were pretty scarce and this was particularly important for uniforms and I had some bother with the the Nurses Association or whatever they called it, because they were really, in those times, very extravagant in the use of material for nurses' uniforms including great veils and dresses that came right down to their sleeves [sic] and all that sort of thing. And so I went to consult with the Head of the Nursing Service about this and, oh, she was most dismissive, she just wasn't prepared to contemplate any change at all. So I went on with my usual spiel about how important it was and I said, 'You know you don't really need the veils that come right down to there, below their waist and if you want a veil well you could have it up to here. You don't really need to have skirts that cover their ankles so they ...' So she said, 'Dr Coombs, I will not have my male patients disturbed by the sight of naked female flesh!'. And I thought, and I said, 'I think you underestimate your patients' imagination'. So I didn't get anywhere, but I sure I - actually they did make some changes finally but it was a very reluctant exercise. I liked this business about protecting the males from the sight of female flesh lest it should disturb them.

Oh there were quite a lot of things like that that, you know, caused some entertainment. We had quite an interesting group you see that by the time all the rationing became necessary, nearly everybody was in war work, so either in the forces or in the services and so I recruited people from universities, some of them teachers and really actually teaching and doing postgraduate work and so on like that and so that we had a very - particularly in the central administrative ... We had a very bright and intelligent group of people you know, really very high, highly qualified and which made the whole thing a very pleasant ex - ex and we it was very hard work, and but it was good to be able to do it in the company of really very interesting people and who know much. They were young and lively and on the whole they came to it because many of them were opposed, in a way, emotionally to the war and to wars generally. And they saw this as a way of satisfying the social demand that they should be involved, but being concerned with a job which we saw and presented as a protection of equality and the ... It was a way of guaranteeing that everybody got a fair share and fair shares became a kind of motto, and of course they composed limericks about it and all sorts of things like that which I can't remember at the moment, but it was somewhat hilarious meetings we used to go on with. So a very young bureaucratic bureaucracy it was at the Central Bank.

The war years also gave you an opportunity to meet some other rather interesting people and to work with them. You went on an overseas trip with Dr Evatt.

Yes.

Could you tell us about that?

Yes, well that was a very interesting journey really because I had not really had anything to do with with Dr Evatt and I went on that journey which was a journey which arose out of his concerns in foreign affairs, and essentially it was to try and persuade the then President of the United States that General Macarthur, who was conducting the war in the Pacific, should get more resources because we in Australia thought that the Japanese part of the war was much more important than most Europeans did. We couldn't get any help out of Churchill for the or anything you like. He just thought that the main function of Australia in the war was to send forces over for him to send off somewhere in Europe. And so that was his purpose but I had nothing whatsoever to do with - had to have nothing to do with that part of the work, of the problem of the war at all. But it was at a time when the beginning of the negotiations leading up to the post-war settlement were beginning, and they had a first conference - post-war kind of a conference related to post-war things. It was a conference on food and agriculture. We set up the FAO, the international organisation, and it was, in an odd sort of way, an Australian initiative, because Lord Bruce who was our High Commissioner in London, had a very strange young chap who'd worked in Australia. He actually was English by origin, McDougall, and he had been a soldier-settler in Australia after the First World War, and he had grown dried fruits I think down the Murray Valley or something like that. But he wasn't really a good farmer, but he was a good writer in a kind of way, and he had a lively mind, and he generated this idea that the solution to the problems of the Depression in agriculture at that time, was to switch to combine to direct agricultures the dealing was the problems of food; feeding. That instead of growing simply for profits you know, that the agriculture should be planned so that it developed in the right places, the kind of products, which would facilitate, enable people to be fed better, and for poor people to get the basic requirements and so on. And he talked to Lord Bruce about this, and Bruce became quite interested in the idea, and it became the basis of the British food policy during the war, that they redirected the whole of British agriculture, and Irish agriculture too, so that it produced the essential - oh, things that ... locally for an adequate diet for people - and this was really very interesting, because it was so successful. It meant that, for instance, that British children, during the war, were for the first time decently fed, at least since the Industrial Revolution, and I think I mentioned to you how I saw a lot of English children in London during the ... when I was over there as a student, and how I did see them during the the war. So what was very interesting was that compared with the '30s when I was there as a student, that the time when I went there during the war there was an astonishing improvement of the health of the children, because this whole policy of basing agriculture in Britain had enabled them to produce milk and fruit, you know the things that were protective foodstuffs. And it also came into the transport question, that those things are very difficult to transport, you've gotta have ... so they concentrated the transport of things on wheat, you know bulk things, that were easy and cheap to transport, and so that. Anyrate that's all rather a long-winded story to explain how I came to be there because I attended that first conference and [it] was a very very interesting one because it was the last conference at which the Russians attended as our noble allies you see. Because very shortly after that they became the focus of the cold war, you know even before the war was over. And so I got to know some of the Russian delegates really quite well. So when we come to those funny stories, I'll tell you one about my introduction to vodka.

Why don't you tell it now?

Well ...

Did this happen at the conference?

Yes it did you see.

Your first introduction to vodka.

Yes, well it was, it was my first introduction in international negotiations too. But I - amongst other things at that time, I was very - well I was interested in trade aspects - and I had an idea that there was ... that one of the problems of that war-time period was a problem about transport, and both for our products and others that we needed. And I had an idea that there was a basis for a shipping establishment with fish ... a service of boats and liners, between Vladivostok and Sydney, and that we could bring paper and timber and things that were plentiful in the Eastern Provinces of what was then Russia, and we could send them wheat. They - that time, the whole of those Eastern Provinces was dependent upon wheat grown in the Western part of ... right up in the Ukraine and places like that, and the transport was very, very expensive and very slow across the - along the trans - ah, what do they call it, the railway ...

Trans-Siberian Railway.

Trans-Siberian Railway, so that I thought this was quite a good idea and I happened to meet the head of the Russian delegation and you know, by way of making conversation I told him that I, that I had this idea and he said, 'That's wonderful, that's a wonderful idea, you must come to have ... we'll have a party for you and your delegates must come to this party and we'll talk about that, this thing'. So I thought this was a good idea and I went along, and we all went and it was you know. So we started to talk about this but fairly early in the conversation a chap appears with a tray of drinks which was vodka in what looked to me and I still envisage it though, glasses that were like the size of a claret glass you see. Any rate I said, 'Look I've never drunk vodka and what - you know, what's the drill, how - what do you do?'. And so he said, 'Well, there's some caviar there', he says, 'You grab a handful of caviar and you put that into your mouth and then you toss the vodka down on top, you see in one fell swallow you see'. So I ... it was a bit of a jolt but I did that and we went on talking about this great idea of mine, but after a while - we were making really good progress - but the chap came around with the drinks again you see, so I repeated this drill, grabbing the caviar but within about oh, 30 seconds I suppose, I realised that I was not merely drunk but I was absolutely blotto; and it was as much as I had to excuse myself and get out before I collapsed on the floor or something like that. And it was fortunately that this particular party was being held in the hotel where we were all living, so I just had to get out the door and down the passage. And so I started to go out but I was very - went out the door laughing fit to kill myself, because as I passed near the door there was one of our delegates from the Department of Trade or whatever, who was one of these people who hated Russians you know, a real vitriolic and here he had some big Georgian up against the wall like this, explaining to him in words of one syllable why he hated the Russians. You see. Probably the Georgian did too, but he didn't understand a word of what was being said, but it was so funny to me with this. He - I think he'd had too many vodkas too. But at any rate, I rushed back to the room where I was and I collapsed onto the bed and I began, the bed began to go and sway like this you know, up and down and up and I felt as if I was a bit like Mohammed's coffin you know sort of suspended halfway between heaven and hell. But anyrate that was pretty nearly the end of that whole exercise although they were quite enthusiastic about the idea. By the time we got to the - after the conference and back home, the honeymoon of relationships between the Allies and Russia was coming to an end, and everybody here was hostile to the idea of having anything to do with a Russian, let alone wanting to trade with them.

Well with an international weapon like vodka, you wonder why they ever wanted to develop a bomb.

A bomb yes. Well it certainly was absolutely explosive as far as I was concerned. Yeah.

And how did you get on with Dr Evatt?

Well, on the whole, finally we got on pretty well but we started off rather badly because he had - right through his life he was inclined to be a bit paranoid. He was very suspicious of what was going on if he didn't or he hadn't initiated it or he wasn't fully aware, and this was a bit of a problem for me because the work that I was sent to do by Chifley, involved all about these economic and other negotiations relating to the establishment of the monetary fund and things like that. So I had an agenda which was quite separate from Dr Evatt's you see and well - I used to tell him what I was doing and all that sort of ... keeping him informed - but on the day we arrived in Washington, he went off to talk to the Head of the State Department or something about his program, and I was sitting there wondering what the hell I would do, and the people from the United States Treasury who knew that I was coming and was going to talk about the mone... - what turned out to be the Monetary Fund, how to conduct the first phase of the negotiations of it - rang up, rang me up to make contact you see and said, 'Well look, why don't you come around straight away and we'll have a preliminary chat, you know, and have a ...' So I thought that was a good idea and I went off. But of course, and in the meantime while I was away he, Evatt, came back and he said to Burton who was his Private Secretary, a chap with us, 'Where's Nugget?' you see and so he said, 'Oh he's gone off to the Treasury'. 'He shouldn't go into these negotiations without me, and without consulting with me'. So after that we ...

You were in big trouble.

I was in big trouble. However we survived that and, on the whole, we became quite good friends. I think one of the interesting things was he was accompanied by his wife, Mary Alice, who was amongst other things quite a good painter. And also he had as a kind of offsider, another painter, a chap who had escaped from occupied France. He was an Australian painter living in [the] South of France I think, growing wine and growing grapes and also painting, but he, Atio, Sam Atio, he was quite a good painter, but he was a very strange, a very strange bloke. He was a kind of - you know the traditional fool around who told stories and entertained Evatt - and so on sort of thing, when that used to lead to trouble from time to time, but it was very handy because when the Doc got upset and oh you know whatever, distressed about things, [the] way things were going and he used to get very difficult to live with, but Sam could always go and slap him on the back and say, you know, old bastard but he managed him really quite well so - but this led to the fact that because of Mrs ... Mary Alice and Sam Atio, we visited regularly every art gallery and every place of that kind of artistic importance in every town we went to, you see, so that - and it was really great fun, because although Sam was a a bit of a licensed fool he was a very, very good judge of a painting. And it was about the only thing I used to say, the only thing where you could take anything that he said seriously, because it was the only thing that mattered as far as he was concerned. He'd tell you anything on matters about economics or politics or anything else, but if it was a question of how good a painter is this bloke, or how good a painting is this, then he really regarded that as a matter of great importance to him.

So there you were dealing with very, very important matters of state, but you found some time to pursue your interest in the arts and to have some fun and relaxation. Is this something you've always been able to do in your public life?

Well ha, it's - I think I have managed fairly successfully till I ... well, yes, but also it was ... In a way it was a great opportunity, you see, because I find that on the whole going to museums and art galleries is a bit of a bore after a while, you know unless you go to see a particular thing like we ... oh, your feet get tired and so on. But going around with them, with those two, was quite different because I was listening to two perhaps of the best-informed people about contemporary art that I'd ever be likely to meet and they were, they were good conversationalists, they talked well, they disagreed about some things and had shared enthusiasms. So that just sitting at home or walking around listening to them was a very interesting experience for me, and certainly I profited very greatly from it. Indeed when I was at the bank and we were buying a few pictures for the bank, and we, in fact, I was very much influenced by the kind of judgement that I think I acquired during that time, and also I began to know who were Australian painters and things like that and what their work was like. And I think the collection of contemporary paintings that the Reserve Bank still holds as a result of that is probably the best financial investment that the Bank has ever had. At least so the Chief Accountant at the Bank assured me one time. We had these paintings amongst others; there was one by Drysdale which was, well, very well known although we bought it very cheaply. And the Government was sending an exhibition overseas around the various foreign affairs places; you know what they call them - embassies. And they asked whether they could borrow this and so they said, 'We'll insure it', and so I said, 'Oh well, seems a worthy purpose'. So I agreed to this and they said, 'We'll just arrange for it to be insured, valued and insured', so I said to the Chief Accountant that they were, [it] was going to be sent overseas and that it had to be insured and would he arrange this and get it valued you see. And I said as he was walking out, I thought well there aren't very many of them maybe - might have been thirty or forty at that time, of them all together - and I said, 'Well you might as well get them all valued', you see. So he came back after a week or so and he said, 'You know those paintings', and I said, 'Yes what about them?'. He said, 'I've just seen the valuations', he said, 'We haven't got any other assets in the bank like that. The capital appreciation is fantastic'. Anyrate so it'd be interesting to have them valued now. I think they would be colossal in value now, you know. There were Drysdales there, there were Clifton Pughs, there are Nolans there, they were - and these were bought for a few hundred pounds at the most. There was a ... and you know what's the name, ah, ... Margaret Preston.

Yes.

Bought for forty pounds, and ...

Extraordinary.

Now being sold for eight thousand.

Not to mention the fact that, of course, it means that there's been a collection that's of cultural value to be held in Australia.

Yes.

Instead of losing them overseas.

Hmmm.

Hmmm.

As I say it was one aspect of travelling with Doc Evatt which was interesting but also when we were in Europe you see, we managed somehow or other - he had an interest in Southern Italy and Sicily because he had some classic, he and his wife both had some background of classical knowledge of the Greek civilisation and the classical works that were done there. And that part of Italy is full of buildings and relics. It was a Greek settlement from the time of the great Pericles and all of the ...

What did you admire most about Doctor Evatt? What was it that he had that you liked and admired?

Well, I think he was ... Well I think I liked him best when he was not being official, when he was ... We lived in the Embassy in Washington, Burton and I and the Evatts, because while we - our Ambassador at that time was ah Mr ... the Chief Justice Dixon, Dixon. Dixon very cunningly, I thought, decided that when Doctor Evatt was going to be in Washington as ... that Dixon ought to vacate the - go back to Australia for a while - and vacate the Embassy so that Doctor Evatt could occupy it and but he - because he was a difficult man because he had this bit of paranoia you know and also he could get angered, very angry and you could find yourself in quite difficult circumstances sometimes. But on the other hand he had a gift of being relaxing - very completely. He used to go off to meetings in the evening, mind you, official meetings and things, and he would come back and Burton and I would be perhaps having a last drink before we went to bed and the Doc would come in and sit on the bed and talk and he had, he really had an incredible range of knowledge. He had, I bet he had one of those photographic memories. He could remember - you couldn't begin a quotation without him, before you got to the end of it, cutting you off and providing the rest of it - and often if it was from poetry he would go on spouting the rest of the poem. But he was [a] very, very interesting conversationalist, and in that kind of atmosphere when he was relaxed he was very good fun.

Was he a good negotiator? Did he do a good job in these international ...

Well I didn't ever see him in negotiations. He was very successful in the whole ... he was really very successful in the negotiations for the setting up of the United Nations. And he was. He was, of course, the first President of the United Nations which was - well, and he wangled that so that he worked very hard for that, you know, in with all the kind of diplomatic negotiating skills, but I, I ... the only place where I saw him in action in negotiation was in Japan. We came back, I think it was the same journey, came back through, through Japan when ... at the time of the occupation, you know when Macarthur would have Lord High something or other over the whole, over the whole of Japan, setting up the new regime, and ...

What was your job - in Japan what was the Delegation from Australia there to do?

Oh well, I was trying to look at what was there, what was happening to the economy and things like that, but also I was involved in some discussions with McMahon, Ball and people like that who were attached to the Australian Embassy about the polit ... what Macarthur was trying to do to the political scene in setting up a kind of imitation of the American ah Presidential system with the ah Emperor nominally at the top of it. Well some of that was really was quite interesting, but really I can absolutely be fair to say that by that time I think my major work on that expedition over some months was finished really, I was just on the way home. But I was interested to spend the ah, whatever it was in ...

And you saw Evatt negotiating there rather well.

Yeah, well I thought he was. He negotiated with Macarthur, but my own feeling was that he gave in to Macarthur far too much but, but that, but that was perhaps an expression of my prejudices, rather than a reflection on his capacities as a negotiator.

Your feelings about Chifley whom you also had a lot to do with during the war, were were different weren't they?

Quite different, quite different.

Yes. Tell me how you felt about him.

Well I had both a tremendous respect for Chifley but also a very great affection. We - you see he was ... he was Treasurer right through the when ... when I was at the, at the Treasury and Curtin was Prime Minister.

Curtin was Prime Minister.

And ... it was and I worked quite closely with Chifley, because he was interested in the Bank in a sense and it was his - him and Curtin that appointed me as a a member of the Bank Board, which was, oh, was an astonishing thing to do. Here I was a relatively junior officer of the bank, on loan to the Treasury, and they appointed me to the Board of the Bank you know which is well ... everybody's eyebrows went went up.

Yes it mustn't have pleased your superiors too much.

Pardon?

It - did it - were you superiors a bit disconcerted by this?

Well some of the people in the bank were ... some of the senior people in the bank were quite appalled by this. Here was the - I was in my late twenties I think, you know 29 or 30 something like that, and I ...

How did you feel? It was a terrific vindication, or a terrific vote of confidence in you wasn't it?

Well yes I think it was and the point was, of course - mind you the the Bank Board was abolished not long after - but still it was a time when the Board of the Bank was still basically conservative. Most of the members were people who had been appointed by Menzies or he - even by his predecessors. No, they weren't bad people, but they were very conservative.

Pre-war in their thinking.

Pre-war; pre-war in their thinking and I had been quite influential I think in - because of the Keynesian emphasis in the approach which I took to financial matters, both before the Labor people came in, through Spender who was acting Treasurer but who was interested in the theory or theoretical basis on which I was working, and that carried through even more strongly when Chifley came, because he understood - he'd read some of the material, he was a good reader, he read a lot, hmm and so that we had things in common, and I did work with him. And it was again him and Curtin, who appointed me to do, ah, run the rationing job which also I'd never done a major piece of administration, never headed any organisation bigger than a class of sch[ool] ... of teenagers in my life, and here I was put in charge of an organisation which see extended over the whole of the country, and had to create it. Oh it was, when I look back on it now I feel I ought to have been terrified. Hmm, and ...

And were you?

Well in - at times I was, I ... ah, I suppose, but on the whole, particularly in the light of this group that we gathered together partly by accident, it was such a lively group, and they were so interested in how you do these things, how you could do these things, so that ah I don't remember feeling oppressed by it. The only time it really got me down was - see there was a really fundamental risk in the whole thing. Before the rationing was introduced, I think I mentioned to you that the shops selling clothing and things like that, they, they were, the shelves were almost empty, and they used to open the store at nine o'clock and close it at ten past you see, because they didn't want the shelves to be completely empty any time. And so over the period while we had to work all this out and while we were getting ready, and Curtin said to me, 'How long will it take before we can actually introduce rationing?'. And so I started to think about this - amongst other things, and I went to the Government Printer and asked him how long it would take him to print the coupon books, and to arrange for their distribution all over Australia. And he went away and he worked it all out in terms of processes, you know, and it came to five weeks or whatever it was - something like that. And so I went ...

[end of tape]

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